Highlanders Survive Knockout Super Rugby Encounter

Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin NZ

A brutal night of rugby saw the Highlanders survive a knockout Super Rugby encounter at their home ground, 32-20. Literally that is, as players were left exhausted and some were clearly the worse-for-wear as the rugged nature of the sport was evident. lt hurt some more than others, in another good display first half from the Western Force in a losing effort. Their third straight on this Kiwi roadtrip, it will be nothing to write home about. Another loss where they acted like being victors in the first half, only to be knocked backward by a strong defending Champion side who had to withstand an early rush and see their season retain it’s direction.

The bone-shattering show entertained the purists, alarmed the faint of heart and made the match about twenty minutes longer due to medical attention [Western Australians might have lost reception to news broadcasts] but it ended in Highlanders favour after they recovered some luster after a few weeks of great and not so great work.

In foreign territory again, the Force were electric to begin with, Dane Hayllet-Petty was excellent. So was Heath Tessman who proved an effective high-kick specialist but it was their energy to open the game that surprised almost everyone. Co-captain Shane Christi reflected on that post-match “We had to work really hard around the ground. They came in and used a lot of energy and [players] fitness was good, it was only a matter of time until we could wear them down”.

Referring to the pretty standard opening from the home favourites who were ‘schooled’ as the boys say. Upset but also just flustered enough to put the wobbles into their early game, holding possession advantage throughout, the Force entered the game as the more dynamic when they followed a good early period with a fortunate ‘comedy of errors’ from Patrick Osbourne. His night would be ‘divine comedy’ as mistakes turned into tries after four minutes and then late in the game he made a great assist for Jason Emery but the fact it was April Fools day had fans tension levels high.

Not helped before kick-off when Lima Sopoaga was a late cut to the run-out team. A precautionary move you would assume, if that disrupted the side then they might have wet themselves when they saw a scoreboard read 0-14 after ten minutes. Trying hard to counter what a gruff Force side threw at them, they did a superb effort to manage the injury scares first to frontrower Brendan Edmonds with a severe leg injury and most disconcertingly, to captain Ben Smith later with 45 minutes gone.

They had to react quickly, as it was just the start one team wanted [the Force] and one that the other side certainly did not. The tactic of attack was electric, so the Force need to be commended for that consistently over this last three weeks. It seemed like a nightmare for fans, it took out the crowd element out early but they did grow in voice late in the match.

The response began when Matt Faddes entered at first receiver–that upset the opposition line and when Aaron Smith fed Osbourne who redeemed his dumb mistakes and the game soon swung a 180 degrees. One try and then a second in quicktime, exciting stuff but they were not polished and would have walked into the sheds knowing there were seven points missing from the scoreboard.

Under all sorts of pressure, full marks to the defending teams systems which was far too often the Highlanders. Far too often, it was 22-20 after Aaron Smith was warned and penalzsed for a lifting tackle. Silly things, nagging little errors that a team six rounds into Super Rugby should not be making. The attacking team had their own but the Handling Errors count soon pushed 25 for the home side. Ouch! Mistakes are coach killers, as they have to make an effort to note them down for one.

The data was not sometimes not by accident, some errors were delicate measures but every inch counts on the field either way. Malakai Fekitoa (pictured) is a player were; like Ma’a Nonu, millimetres separate amazing from another dropped ball. By the time Nonu went to the Twickerham RWC final, he had mended those errors and Fekitoa will need time–but needs to be more secure for many fans liking, if he wants to wear another black jersey.

By the final minute, it was all too uncomfortable. Preparing this report, I had to second guess some territory gains by the advancing Force  team that got very close to the Blue-zone but their disjointed side lost it’s cohesion to trouble the scorers in no more than six points. Owning a small margin thanks to 4/5 kicks helped, and the pre-game loss of Sopoaga was apparently no dent to their kicking effectiveness. Parker is a cool customer, he shuffles around and he was helped in defence many times by big Elliot Dixon–that man plays well with a blood bandage on, so you admire his resolve and blood pressure too. As Parker was subbed for Marty Banks, his growing fan brigade started to chant his name and the crowd began to smile as they sensed a win. Just a shame they could not claim the final act of the game as the TMO ruined a bonus point win. “What forward pass?” fans were yelling.

Possession wise, the Force dominated. Allowing the visitors 60% ball was unthinkable pre-game. This Force team had a major contribution to the match but overall it was a poor finish that will haunt them on their return flight. Captain Matt Hodgson said he was proud of the boys. “We had hookers packing down in the second row but we had pride in our line, and to only let one try in that second half is pretty good”.

Asked by Melodie Robinson from Sky Sport what improvements he saw, Hodgson added “even though we let them in and they scored two tries before half time, unlike last week we held in there. Some positive signs”. He commented that they played 60 minutes for two weeks and while that is good, it is not winning. A close win yes, it was only 32-20 but you will need to do more than knockout some of these ‘Landers men to beat them. With all due respect to health professionals, these are Southern Men.

Banged up and bruised they will carry on the fight. It is a character trait their coach embodied and almost every man will bleed every drop to refuse a loss. It is a real dedication too. Big lock Alex Ainsley did a ton of work, so did Dan Lienert-Brown (who returned from a concussion test himself) so the commitment was deep and the rewards were earned by men like  in the final quarter when the Force went limp.

A hard team to stop, the script was ripped up after 5 minutes. It was really good to see the Southern team re-write their role and to redress some poor work, but it was only just reward that they rebuffed a ‘Force of pressure’.

A torrid Super Rugby encounter, it will have some reward for the defending champions, a little bit of hope for the Western Force but a headache come the morning for more than a dozen men who all put their bodies on the line. That is what rugby is all about, but I doff my cap to every man who walked out on Forsyth-Barr Stadium. A tough night at the office which was far from the predictions. Nobody thought it would be 14-14 at halftime and it was a better Highlanders team that need to now prepare for some offshore games.

Sore bodies are a by-product of topclass sport. The big task for Jamie Joseph to manage is the mental toughness. His group is good, they did well in 2015 and have need to prove their worth now. The heat is on after a bit of a messy game by their standards. Too much dropped ball, but the confidence grew and new players injected their enthusiasm which is one highlight. You can’t train for so many changes to the lineup, but experience will count for it later I believe.

So many injuries, the game ended late with so many medic’s having to run on and we hope the forwards who were removed will all be feeling better tomorrow. With such ‘knockout’ rugby, you hope that all the protocols are followed and every player is offered the full medical care they must be entitled too (the modern game has many guidelines and processes in place for any player who shows any concussion like symptoms) Nobody wants to try to ‘walk it off’. Angus Cottrell took a front-on head clash which floored him and all safety was put in place, even if it took five minutes to move him to the sidelines.

Player welfare is paramount today, so even a trip to Brisbane will be felt by the guys late in the week. Dixon may need to be considered for a break, with Ben Smith the more likely to be an enforced All Black rest period. He has much more to add and his health means more to the Highlanders and to All Blacks rugby this year. Not that any one player is more important, even Siua Halanukonuka might feel a bump on his head too and his role is just as important.

The bye is due soon, so look for them to repair the machine and look to get back to where they hope they are after six rounds. Four points was a little less reward than anticipated, but not to be taken for granted. The opening ten minutes will prove for an ugly video session before they board the flight across the Tasman, but bodies will still be sore after a Knockout Super Rugby Encounter.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Aaron Smith. For as much as he needs a rest, nobody can image any Highlanders game without ‘The Nugget’. His barking is now legendary and for a flanker or frontrow forward, that must be reassuring. His darting run and little chip was a delight and even his aggressive tackling only needs to be managed better as any halfback can be a little bit scrappy. Box kicks for the sideline are great but he should also look for more grubber kicks (although Sopoaga is the specialist here)

Smith is a class above the rest. If he were to be removed, the side would need every ounce of energy and more, to play anything like they managed tonight.

Next match: Saturday 9th April – Reds v Highlanders, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane.

“Main photo credit”

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